“Jobs” and “The Butler” – Very Loosely “Based…”


(Warning: I am not a real movie reviewer, I just play on one the Internet…)

Last Friday, Mark Montgomery and I rounded up about 99 of our closest friends from Nashville’s tech-and-start-up community, and we all huddled in the dark to watch “Jobs,” the bio-pic of the Apple Computer co-founder starring Ashton Kutcher in the title role.

Several people have since asked me what I thought of the movie. In one conversation afterward I rated it with a simple “7.” In retrospect, I’m thinking that was probably an unnecessarily charitable assessment.

As character study, it’s mabye a 7. As a cinema experience, not so much.

What merit the film does have stems entirely from Kutcher’s performance. From the convincingly close physical resemblance to Jobs’ slouching, loping gait, Kutcher manages to elevate what is an otherwise disappointing narrative.

If ever there was a true story that lends itself to the calling/outcast/redemption arc of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Calling,” it was life of Steve Jobs. But the screenplay behind this movie doesn’t really trace any discernible arc at all.

It is, rather, a litany of sequential vignettes that attempt to convey the duality of Steve Jobs character without conveying any sense of his evolution. It bounces between his genius and his dicknishness: here’s a scene of Steve being a genius; now here’s a scene of Steve being a dick. Here’s another scene of Steve being a visionary, here’s another of him being a colossal asshole. Rinse and repeat for about two hours.

From what I recall after reading Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” biography – released shortly after Jobs’ death in 2011 – the period of Jobs’ life that set up his redemption was the period of his exile from Apple, when he started Next and acquired Pixar. That was the period that transformed Steve Jobs from a tech wunderkind into the impresario who launched the entire line of iGizmos, starting with the iMac, the iPod (as portrayed in the movie) and culminating in the iPhone and the truly revolutionary iPad.

But the movie doesn’t really deal with that period at all. It’s like they just ran out of time. Having spent the first hour-and-forty-five-minutes of screen-time setting up Steve’s gut-wrenching, spirit crushing ouster from Apple, the filmmakers were left with only 15 minutes to deal with his return to Apple starting in 1997. By which time Next – the software that still lives at the heart of the MacOS – has magically and invisibly been born and matured and been acquired by Apple. Cut to Steve showing himself around the corporate campus and having a seminal chat with Johnny Ive. Fade to black. End of story.

So what we wind up with is a recitation of story points – a typical ‘based on a true story” cinematic mixture of facts and myths – and a film that entirely fails to trace any kind of dramatic arc or trajectory that might leave a viewer with some kind of emotional payoff in the final scenes. Ashton Kutcher’s portrayal makes the film worth watching (provided you’ve got enough popcorn for two-plus hours – nearly two-and-a-half if you include the 20 minutes of trailers before the feature), but the narrative creates at best a cardboard caricature of a complex character who drives the story into an emotional cul-de-sac.

* * * *

I suppose it would be convenient if I could say, something like “well, the film adhered so closely to the historical facts that it couldn’t quite conform to the requirements dramatic story-telling.”

Unfortunately, that is apparently not the case, either.

I made a concerted effort in the weeks leading up to the film’s release to avoid most of the commentary that was spun out after the film’s initial screenings. I’d seen in headlines that Steve Wozniak, the still-living half of the Steves Duo that started Apple, was not happy with the film, but I resisted the temptation to read his objections until after I’d see the film myself. So imagine my disappointment when I finally learn that Woz’s objections undermine one of the aspects of the film where I had found some redeeming value.

There are a couple of times early in the film, when Apple is just getting started, when a potential suitor makes an offer, and Steve counters with a demand for much better terms. But according to Wozniak, that version of Jobs was pretty much a screenwriter’s fabrication:

Woz goes on to point out what he sees as the movie’s major flaw: It attributes Jobs’ mythical business and technology brilliance, which Woz says only really came into play during and after the release of the iPod, to the man’s entire life.

Likewise, much of the early vision of the future of computing that is attributed to Jobs in the movie is, according to Woz, misdirected:

Not close…we never had such interaction and roles…I’m not even sure what it’s getting at…personalities are very wrong although mine is closer…don’t forget that my purpose was inspired by the values of the Homebrew Computer Club along with ideas of the value of such machines and Steve J. wasn’t around and didn’t attend the club so he was the one learning about such social impact of the future

It is always a challenge in a “bio-pic” to rise above the simple recitation of facts and create engaging, emotionally compelling entertainment. “Jobs” has lots of company in not quite rising to that challenge.

* * * *

Ironically, “Jobs” was not the only “bio-pic” that opened this weekend.

On Sunday my wife and I returned to the scene of Friday night’s cinema crime to see the widely heralded “The Butler.” As a movie experience, we both agreed that “The Butler” was far more satisfying than “Jobs” – and the weekend box office receipts seem to bear that out.

As a “cinema experience,” “The Butler” is everything that “Jobs” is not. But as an accurate retelling of its underlying story, “The Butler” is an even more egregious departure from its “true story” than “Jobs.”

This tendency to treat “historical drama” as “historical fiction” reached a crescendo of sorts last year, when “Argo” pretty much swept the Oscar sweepstakes. Argo was a truly gripping film. But if you like your historical drama served with a sprinkling of facts, don’t Google ‘Argo fact -v- fiction,” lest you discover that about the only thing that was taken from the actual case history was the underlying premise.

At least “The Butler” had the good sense to use fictional names for its central characters. I suppose it had to, since at least one of them was fabricated out of whole cloth.

I’ve had my own close encounter with this sort of historical drama -v- historical fiction, with no less a personage than Aaron Sorkin, who did a fine job telling the story of Philo T. Farnsworth until he got lazy and reversed a legal verdict in order to get to “The End.” Now we learn that Sorkin – who took whatever creative liberties he found convenient or necessary in his own Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Social Network” – will be adapting the next version of the Steve Jobs movie, this one based more directly on Walter Isaacson’s very readable biography. I can hardly wait to see how that turns out. I won’t be surprised if it ends with Steve Jobs still alive, and living in the White House with The Butler – and Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Movies like “Jobs,” “The Butler,” or “Argo” usually begin with a title card that reads, “based on a true story.” But once you get past the final credits, it seems that preamble needs a caveat or two. “Based on a true” story almost always needs to be preceded by the word “loosely.” And in some cases – “Argo” and “The Butler” in particular – the word “loosely” needs to be preceded by the word “very.”

If, as they say, sometimes “life imitates art,” then it’s a bit baffling that art cannot sometimes do a better job of imitating life.

In any event, here’s what a movie theater full of geeks looks like before the lights go down:

A movie theater full of geeks

The inaugural (?) “Nashtech Night At The Movies”

Sincere thanks to everybody who came and filled the house, and yes, we will try to do it again sometime in the fall.

–Paul Schatzkin
August 19, 2013